Taking Wigstock: Michael James O’Brien’s ’90s Drag Portraits Capture an Explosive Moment in Queer Visibility

In the 1990s, drag shimmied into the American mainstream in films like The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. If you grew up in this era, it was likely through these imaginary portraits of the drag world that you came to have a vague understanding of drag’s traditions and manifold sensibilities. Meanwhile, documentaries like Paris Is Burning and Wigstock: the Movie gave those who were interested in drag beyond its potential for moving straight audiences with introductory comedy narratives a closer, anthropological look at the celebratory scene — one that provided room for ecstatic transgression and self-exploration towards the end of a devastating era for the queer community.

Like these documentaries, Michael James O’Brien‘s Girlfriend project is timeless while also serving as a specific representation of its time: throughout the ’90s, the photographer captured glimpses of the huge personas of the era’s drag scenes. Now, various photos from the project are on display at Liverpool’s International Photography Festival. The images in the slideshow below were taken at Wigstock — the NY drag festival co-hosted by Lady Bunny (who appears in one of the images) — in 1992. They grasp at the infinite potential of what could be expressed through drag: it wasn’t just, as some critiques of drag have charged, caricatural female impersonation. This was certainly a component, but more generally, drag was a way of extending the self, of resisting the confines of marginalization (and of notions that homosexuality was something to hide, or something tied up in illness and tragedy) with the unfettering of queer identities.

"Butch Queens in Chanel" by Michael James O'Brien
Butch Queens in Chanel, by Michael James O’Brien
"Sister Dimension" by Michael James O'Brien
Sister Dimension, by Michael James O’Brien
LadyBunny by Michael James O'Brien
LadyBunny, by Michael James O’Brien

Ming Vauze by Michael James O'Brien
Ming Vauze by Michael James O’Brien
"Lavinia Co-op" by Michael James O'Brien
Lavinia Co-op, by Michael James O’Brien
"Ebony Jet" by Michael James O'Brien
Ebony Jet, by Michael James O’Brien

Constance, by Michael James O'Brien
Constance, by Michael James O’Brien
Miss Guy, by Michael James O'Brien
Miss Guy, by Michael James O’Brien
La Homma, by Michael James O'Brien
La Homma, by Michael James O’Brien

Dorian Corey, by Michael James O'Brien
Dorian Corey, by Michael James O’Brien
John Kelly by Michael James O'Brien
John Kelly by Michael James O’Brien
Mona Foote, by Michael James O'Brien
Mona Foote, by Michael James O’Brien